Why LGBTQ+ rights should never come down to a vote

Stephanie Farnsworth examines the issue of voting on LGBTQ+ rights, in the wake of Australia’s decision to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality.

Australia’s announcement of a plebiscite to decide whether to allow marriage equality follows the tired pattern of those in power failing to stand up for the people they are supposed to be serving.

The idea of a vote on marriage is nothing new. Whether it’s to go to the parliament or to the people, it seems to be the only option that politicians are keen on, but this model for legislative consultation ignores the issue that matters of human right shouldn’t be up for discussion.

While it is positive to discuss LGBTQ+ rights specifically, many conservatives use this to deny the fact that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. There’s a cognitive dissonance acutely at work to try to sever the ties that LGBTQ+ people are actually humans who deserve respect rather than merely a political problem in the wake of growing sexual and gender liberalism in many places. Instead of discussing LGBTQ+ rights as a subset of human rights, many are keen to split the two entirely and treat LGBTQ+ rights as a luxurious request.

While it is positive to discuss LGBTQ+ rights specifically, many conservatives use this to deny the fact that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights.

It is foolish of any liberal to think that a public which has overwhelmingly persecuted LGBTQ+ people for centuries is going to be fair and balanced when it comes down to voting on the rights of oppressed people. With the rise of Christianity came the backlash against sexual autonomy and gender diversity and therefore particularly against LGBTQ+ people. Such historic attitudes that have been embedded into Western society for so many years is going to be difficult to challenge and even in the most liberal of countries, religious organisations and conservative ideals still hold considerable sway.

The reliance of turning to the voters when things get uncomfortable also shows that liberals simply cannot be trusted to truly stand up for oppressed people; they’ll always put their own popularity first. Any plebiscite or referendum is conceivably a cynical tactic by conservatives, knowing it may be the last chance to scupper plans which seem almost inevitable. This is not just an attack on one Australian political party, when so much of Europe has relied on similar tactics of either leaving debates up to MPs or to shirk all responsibility and leave it to the voters.

Having the rights and existences of LGBTQ+ people being debated is humiliating, degrading and invasive. In the United Kingdom, when the vote was merely put to Parliament, the LGBTQ+ people of the country had to listen to all kinds of bigoted comments such as fears of a lesbian queen, a cringeworthy debate about how to define sex between people of the same gender (Parliament was so baffled by this concept that it eventually gave up even pursuing a consummation clause) and a plethora of comments about how being LGBTQ+ was somehow less than, and particularly damaging for children to be exposed to. Much of the country was shielded by this, able to dismiss the debates as being held by white cis middle class people in a building that nobody ever really paid attention to. Fortunately, even the Church of England trying to interfere could be ignored by many citizens. A vote by the public, though, is much harder to avoid and harmful words are far more difficult to escape.

Words are hurtful. Proponents of free speech often ignore the responsibility and consequences which come hand in hand with being able to say whatever one desires. Hate speech is a major contributor towards perpetuating hatred against LGBTQ+ people but also in the number of suicides within the community. To carry out such a debate, and to drag the entire country into it, is to deliberately put the lives of LGBTQ+ people at risk. The decision was not made out of any concern for the community, but out of purely trying to solve a political problem by passing the buck. LGBTQ+ lives, in short, just aren’t worth fighting for.

The whole basis for the vote seems to ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; LGBTQ+ people should not have to audition for their rights. Equality shouldn’t come down to a political version of The X Factor.

Equality shouldn’t come down to a political version of The X Factor.

Such a process of having to pander to votes has led to long campaigns of respectability within the community. We’ve seen organisations such as Stonewall become more sanitised, Pride marches become devoid of their political elements in favour of securing finance by allowing advertisements and arguments centred around how wonderful we all are with children. To win support, the community has had to silence many of the issues within its own home. It has meant throwing transgender people under the bus when it became clear that gay rights would be easier to sell to a conservative public.

Yet the point of acknowledging human rights is to acknowledge the humanity of everyone and that includes the people that conservatives don’t like or approve of, that includes the people that may cost you the middle class religious vote and that includes people who are at a greater risk of experiencing harassment, abuse, assault, mental health issues, suicide and discrimination. Too many leaders are far too happy to take a photo opportunity at a Pride march but then will not commit to any policies that actually help LGBTQ+ people.

Liberals will say that we need to be patient because to make progress smoothly often takes time but that ignores the reality that nothing is smooth for LGBTQ+ people. When trans people can’t get basic healthcare, when LGBTQ+ kids are more likely to be bullied and homeless, then action is needed now. It will only ever feel like a smooth transition into each new era of rights for the cisgender, white men comfortable in their parliaments or congress. It will not be an easy or smooth journey for the LGBTQ+ people living through the decisions of the policy makers.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)

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